IATEFL 2018 Phil Benson PCE: Autonomy beyond the classroom

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

Joint ReSIG & LaSIG PCE, Mon 9th April

 Phil Benson: What does pedagogy for autonomy mean beyond the classroom?

Prof. Phil Benson's plenary at the joint ReSIG and LaSIG PCE at IATEFL; Brighton, April 9th, 2018


This post reports on one of the two plenary presentations given as part of the joint Research SIG (Special Interest Group) and Learner Autonomy SIG at the PCE (Pre-Conference Event) at IATEFL, Brighton 2018. The first plenary was given by Professor Phil Benson (Macquarie University, Australia), a world renowned authority in the field of Learner Autonomy (LA). Some of his recent and most widely-referenced books include:
Benson, P. Teaching and Researching Learner Autonomy (2nd Edition) (2011). Applied Linguistics in Action (Eds. Candlin, C. & Hall, D.). Routledge, London & New York. 

Benson, P. & Reinders, H. (Eds.) (2011). Beyond the Language Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan.

Learner Autonomy and Language Teaching

Somewhat contradictorily, becoming an autonomous language learner is becoming both easier and more complex in the 21st century. Urban environments and internet access provide an abundance of information but also abundant distraction.

One of our major goals as language teachers is to foster autonomy in our learners. These goals can take the form of ‘short-term individual’ goals: The learners only attend the course for short periods, e.g. for 5 weeks. In such short periods, great advances in learning and development of LA is unrealistic, however, the following two points should be attainable:

- Students should leave the classroom / course more autonomous than they were when they entered
- Teachers should focus on classroom processes, learning management and learning skills.

In contrast, long-term collective goals should focus on the autonomy of language competence. In this case, the focus shifts from learning in to learning both in and beyond the classroom. See slide below for references:



What is Learner Autonomy?

There are many definitions of LA, but Prof. Benson has come to the conclusion that the two key concepts are Personal Relevance and Ownership. All too often learners ‘simplify themselves’ for the learning experience. The reality is that each individual is a complex combination of factors. Selected quotes which illustrate these constructs are reproduced on the slide below, but Prof. Benson highlighted the extract from Ernesto Macaro (2008) ‘being able to say what you want to say rather than producing the language of others.’ 
Personal relevance and ownership: essential elements of learner autonomy


Phil expressed some dissatisfaction with the proliferation of the word ‘context’ in Applied Linguistics, as it is overused to the point of becoming meaningless. He prefers to describe the environment or setting. He also introduced the construct of space. According to this conceptualisation, a setting is a space where language is encountered and (potentially) learned.

Within these spaces, the learner will find attachments: Language is ‘attached’ to material objects, events, situations or people. The construct of engagement is defined as the interactions between agents (learners) and these language objects and their attachments. The slide below summarises definitions of some the constructs described in this talk.
Definitions within the study of Learner Autonomy

Learners' interaction with language outside class 

In a study of part-time ESL students in Sydney, learners used the online app ‘Diaro’ to register where they are and what they are doing every hour, which produces a map of their linguistic environment. Analysis of the data reveals a ‘triangle’ Home-Class-Part-Time Job. 
Tracking the moviments of ESL learners in Sydney

Most students in this study had a part-time job related to their nationality, ie, Chinese students worked in Chinese restaurants. When teachers tell students to go out and meet more Native Speakers (NSs), the learners can legitimately think ‘when?’ This may reveal one commonly-held misconception among language teachers: language learning outside the classroom is essentially interacting with NSs, while in fact, there are so many more opportunities available to learn.

Mapping ESL learners moviments in and around Sydney

Attachments can take many forms. By emphasising interaction with NSs, we are downplaying the importance of other language attachments. These attachments often occur in the ‘interspace’ (see slide below). The interspace is represented by the arrows on the above graphic: the journeys to and from work and class, the down time between classes. Learners travelling by bike may have mininal language encounters, but those travelling by train will be surrounded by language. The question is do they notice it or do they put in their earphones and switch off the linguistic environment?
Students are in 'interspace' between class, home and work

The advent and dominance of mobile phones, and their attached cameras, has produced an interesting quandary in the definitions of this area of LA. When you are checking the online reviews on your phone outside the restaurant, is the mobile phone a part of the linguistic environment or an agent? Benson suggests considering the mobile as an extension of the learner. Mobile phone use tends to take place in interspace. The restaurant reviews become a linguistic attachment, which are attached to the restaurant.
Mobile phones in autonomous language learning

Fostering Learner Autonomy

As much as teachers might encourage them, learners are not able to change their environment much. They are ‘locked in’ to certain routines. What they can do, however, is change their engagement with their environments. The photo below was taken in Hong Kong, generally considered to be a fairly monolingual context. The phtase ‘makes doing business easier’, once analysed, can reveal some complex language structures. As teachers, we hope to encourage learners to ‘unpack’ this space-time event rather than ignore it.
A learning opportunity on the streets of Hong Kong


Benson suggested the following important ‘takeaways’ from the plenary.

According to Benson, there is huge potential for research in this area through what he calls ‘collaborative exploratory action research’, summarised in the slide below:
Collaborative Exploratory Action Research

Finally, he suggested some possible contexts for this type of research:


Littlewood, W. (1996). Autonomy: An anatomy and a framework, System, 24(4), 427-435.

Macaro, E. (1997).Target language, collaborative learning and autonomy.Clevedon. Multilingual Matters.

Macaro, E. (2008). The shifting dimensions of language learner autonomy. In T. E. Lamb & H. Reinders (Eds.) Learner and teacher autonomy: Concepts, realities and responses. Amsterdam, Bohn Benjamins.

Nuna, D. (1988). The learner-centred currículum.Cambridge. CUP.

Urry, J, (2007). Mobilities, Cambridge, Polity Press.


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